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Want to Build a Better Website? Stop Focusing on Your Customers

"We put our customers first," you say. Great!
But where building business websites is concerned, focusing first on what the customer wants means you get it backwards. A business website -- in fact, any website -- should always be based on what you want and what you intend.
Then you can think about the customer.

Here are three ways business websites often go astray by putting the "customer first":

Focusing on "need" instead of intention. Most business owners (and web designers) create an overall website structure by saying, "Okay... we need a home page, some product pages, a few resource pages, maybe a blog, an About Us and Contact page..." All of which may be true, but what do you want customers to actually do? Every page should drive some type of customer action:

  • The home page should drive subsequent actions. Check out products, learn more about services, sign up for promotions or newsletters, etc. A home page that tries to do too much accomplishes nothing. Decide on one or two actions you want customers to take when they arrive and focus on building your home page so visitors are most likely to do what you intend. (BNET colleague Jon Gelberg's review of the WildChina website is a good primer on home pages.)
  • Product pages should make it as easy as possible for customers to make a purchase. Provide information, specs, etc? Absolutely -- but what you really want customers to do is buy. Making sales is your intent, so build product pages that first and foremost serve the sales process.
  • Resource pages should provide information and lead to a subsequent action. Think about what you want a customer to do after they read the information provided: Go to a product page, check out other resources or services... a resource page should always provide a clear gateway to another action you want the customer to take.
  • "Standard" pages should provide the information you want customers to know and information that serves your ultimate purpose. About Us pages should provide details that help customers feel more comfortable making a purchase; here are 7 ways to write a better About Us page. Contact Us pages should not only make it easy for customers to reach you, but also in the way that best serves your business. (If most of your sales require conversations with customers, should an email form be the featured contact method on your Contact page?) No page is a throwaway page; every page, even the "standard" ones, should serve a purpose -- a purpose you define.
Listening too closely to customer feedback. Customers are always right... until they aren't. (Then, usually, they are no longer customers.) What a small slice of vocal customers wants may not be right for your website or your business.

Think of it this way: Often customers don't know what they need. Did you need an iPad before you saw one? Did anyone need overnight document delivery before FedEx came along? Your job is to create a better, faster, easier, cheaper, etc. product or service. Sometimes customers can help you predict the future, but in most cases it's to you.

Like Henry Ford famously said, "If I'd have listened to my customers, I'd have given them a faster horse."

Listen when it clearly makes sense, but don't react to every comment. Otherwise your business is a follower, not a leader.

Letting the customer "discover" the value. Many websites soft sell. Restraint can be admirable; no one likes a pushy salesperson, even a virtual one. But your website only has seconds to engage a new visitor. "Sell" the benefits of what you provide too softly and new visitors will leave and never return. You don't have to say, "We're the greatest!" to engage visitors. Just make sure your call to action is clear. "Purchase," "Check Out Now," "View Our Demo," "Free Sample"... whatever the action you intend, make sure that action is easy to find and take.

Great calls to action resonate with customers because they clearly describe the benefit to the customer; when a customer recognizes tangible benefits or problems that will be solved with real solutions, they're glad. They don't feel as if they are being "sold" because you help make their lives better.

Make sure your websites asks for what you want customers to do. Professionally and tactfully, of course -- but also directly.

Bottom line: Don't just create a site based on what other sites look like or on the pages, resources, and features you "need." Always think about what actions you want customers to take and create every web page with those actions in mind. Remember, the best web experiences and customer relationships aren't passive; they're active.

You should determine just how active.


Note to Readers: Check out my BNET series The 11,500 Foot View, the chronicle of my attempt to accomplish an impossible goal, remain in the good graces of my family, run a business, stay sane, and blog about it. If you like self-inflicted pain and suffering, you'll love this.
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